Thursday, September 28, 2006

Surf's upside down: "The Poseidon Adventure"

I'd never use this phrase otherwise, but since the movie was made in the '70s ...

What a turkey.

Seriously, I was pumped up to see the original boat-goes-bottoms-up movie when it came on one of our HDTV channels. I remembered seeing part of it as a wee lad, and I always thought the story of people fighting for survival in a capsized ocean liner was pretty cool.

I was wrong. It could be that this movie is hopelessly dated, with the special effects and death-at-your-back scenes woefully simple compared with today's CGI universe. But I'm not sure that's it. I think the problem is a hokey story and hammy performances -- a good combo when "Jay and Silent Bob" is in the title, but not so much in a disaster flick, even a would-be popcorn movie.

Our story has a supposedly star-studded cast -- Gene Hackman! Ernest Borgnine! Red Buttons! Roddy McDowall! Shelly Winters! Stella Stevens! And Leslie Nielsen as "The Captain!" -- aboard the S.S. Poseidon when a "rogue wave" tips the dinghy over. That leaves Hackman to lead a hearty band of survivors to the bottom of the boat (now the top), dodging peril at almost every corner. The suspense!

No question there are some entertaining bits here. For one, Nielsen in a straight role. Really! I had a hard time taking him seriously, but after a while you realize he's not going to crack any jokes. Weird. Instead, we get Stevens and Winters as comic relief, with a little Borgnine for good measure.

Hackman is all business, though, and as much as I like the guy, this is not his finest hour ... or finest minute. Our man Gene seemed intent on overacting in his role as the heroic preacher, and it got pretty irritating after a while. "We have to keep going!" "This is the way out!" OK, I get it. Don't get your turtleneck in a bunch.

It's all rather silly as the movie wears on. Sure, Stevens looks great in her white cocktail dress, and the lounge singer (Carol Lynley) isn't hard to look at, either, even if she's always bawling. I'll also give "Poseidon" a few points for killing off some characters. Then again, does that really count if you're happy to see those folks die? I think not.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

And he discovered a secret salad dressing ingredient, to boot: "Harper"

I know, I know ... it's been slow going here at Ye Olde Movievangelist. What can I say? I've been busy around the house, the fall TV season has started -- stay tuned for thoughts on that later -- and I'm just low on energy when it comes to new posts. Not that I've seen too many movies lately. It's kind of shameful, I know. Sure, there's not a whole lot of great stuff in theaters, but I need to get out of the house more often. I hear they even show talkies now ...

Anyway, I ended up recording a movie not long ago that I had never heard of but seemed somewhat decent. "Harper" has Paul Newman as an L.A. private eye hired to find a missing man. Ah, but not just any missing man. A rich missing man, whose wife, Lauren Bacall, doesn't really care if he's found alive since that means she won't get all his loot. Still, she does need to know if he's dead, and that's where Lew Harper comes in.

Interesting little fact: This character is based on a series of Ross McDonald books are a p.i. named Lew Archer. I read a couple of those books as a kid, but didn't know that Archer became Harper so the movie would fit in with some of Newman's other films, such as "Hud" and "The Hustler." Hey, how about that?

(Side note: Isn't "Lew" a funny name? Lou? Sure. But Lew? Just looks weird. And notice how there are plenty of Louies out there but nobody who goes by Lewie. Like I said, weird. Or is it just me?)

Decent cast here, most notably the boyish Robert Wagner and a pushing-40 Janet Leigh. Newman is the big star, though, and he's actually pretty good. This came out a year before "Cool Hand Luke" and three years before "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," two movies that many rattle off early on when reciting the Newman filmography. But "Harper" also gives him plenty of chances to have fun and play rough -- with police, the missing man's daughter, his estranged wife.

Sure, Newman may be too pretty to be a private dick, but he seemed to get into the role. I especially liked the jawing with the sheriff, the subterfuge in the bar and the whole dynamic with his wife. The story isn't bad, either, with enough twists to keep things interesting pretty much to the end. I'm not sure what I expected, but overall this is a nice, relatively unknown mystery movie. Much better than his peach salsa. Bleeech.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Yeah, but MY dog never karate kicks anyone: "Unleashed"

For as many movies as he has made, Jet Li is pretty much off my radar. I've seen none of his Asian movies and skipped his American coming-out, "Lethal Weapon 4," because it looked ... what's the word I'm looking for? Ah yes ... crappy. I did catch "Romeo Must Die," which was somewhat entertaining, but haven't see the recent period martial-arts film "Hero" or the B-movies "Cradle 2 the Grave" and "Kiss of the Dragon." So yeah, not so much Jet Li for me.

I also passed on "Unleashed" in the theaters, recalling mediocre reviews and a rather silly premise: Our man Jet is treated like an attack dog, set loose by Bob Hoskins to destroy people, before escaping and becoming a human being under the watchful eye of cuddly Morgan Freeman. And Li's not even a penguin!

After watching the movie on HBO, I can report that the plot is pretty much what I thought, with a little more back-and-forth between the bad old life with Hoskins and the good life with Freeman. There's also a girl on the good side, who was pretty geeky but -- I later learned -- the same actress who played an aspiring teen lesbian in "Rome," and showed her goodies to boot. Wow, that's some range.

As for "Unleashed," we get a combination martial arts bloodfest and feel-good tale of salvation, which doesn't always work. Strike that ... it almost never works. Sure, Li has the fierce chop-socky face and the wounded puppy dog face down pat, and he's generally likable when not flailing away with his limbs. And yeah, the action is decent enough, especially after Li has decided he doesn't want to kill anymore yet has to deal with both a battle to the death, gladiator-style, and a tilt in a bathroom -- maybe the most amusing fight scene in the movie.

But the story is way too uneven and boring in more than one part -- unforgiveable for this kind of action fare. And the characters? Blah. I know, I know ... it's not like Meryl Streep was up for a part here. This is the same director, after who, who did the "Transporter" movies.

Still, if you're going to trot people who can actually act, i.e. Freeman and Hoskins, let's try not to make them total cartoons. Freeman was his standard nurturer; I'm guessing the DVD has outtakes of him saying, "Y'all have my check ready, right?" And Hoskins was less terrifying than laughable. C'mon, man ... you were in "Super Mario Bros." and "Spice World." Those were much scarier than anything I saw here!

Monday, September 18, 2006

I've been to Aurora ... NOT excellent ... not at all: "Wayne's World"

Believe it or not, at one point in history, a disguise for Mike Myers was something as simple as shoulder-length hair, black T-shirt and baseball cap. No, really ... it's true!

Way before he was our favorite snaggle-toothed superspy and cartoon ogre, Myers actually did movies in which you saw his normal face. But even cases such as "So I Married an Axe Murderer" had exceptions, with Myers donning the old Scottish man costume to play his own dad, which was hilarious. "Head! Pants! Now!"

(On that note, here's my favorite line, barely nudging out the "Pentaverate" conspiracy theory: "I'm not kidding, that boy's head is like Sputnik: spherical but quite pointy at parts. Aye, now that was offsides, now wasn't it? He'll be crying himself to sleep tonight ... on his huge pilla!")

Anyway, we all remember the "Wayne's World" skits from "Saturday Night Live," and I recall cringing at word of a big-screen incarnation. Fortunately, this turned out to be one of the better SNL movies -- far from wall-to-wall hilarity, but generally entertaining and even clever in a few parts. And really ... anytime you have Ed O'Neill as a ticking time bomb counter man at the local donut shop, how can you go wrong?

Our story has Wayne (Myers) and his buddy Garth (Dana "Yeah, I don't know what I'm doing now, either" Carvey) doing their cable-access show in Wayne's basement when they're "discovered" by a slimy TV executive (Rob Lowe). Turns out this guy also has eyes for Wayne's new girlfriend (Tia Carrere), a rock singer looking for her own big break. Will Wayne lose the show AND the girl? Sheyah! As if!

Like I said, the potential for something very, very bad was apparent. But Myers is a funny guy and, as the writer, inserts all sorts of subtle and even smart jokes along with the silly stuff. Sure, we get the obligatory "We're not worthy!" chant and "Schwing!" salutes. But we also get a clearly labeled "Oscar Clip" and "Gratuitous Sex Scene," a great nod to corporate sponsorship and Alice Cooper's surprising knowledge of the city of Milwaukee. (Altogether now ... "it's pronounced 'millie-wah-que,' which is Algonquin for 'the good land.'")

There are other things to enjoy, including brief appearances by Chris Farley and the bad guy in "Terminator 2." But it's really Myers' show, and while the movie is dated in a few parts, it's still pretty funny. Even better, there's nary a tall, red-and-white striped hat anywhere in sight.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Where is Rutger Hauer when you need him?: "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

I'll admit ... I may have messe dup with this one. (Note: I saw that typo and was going to fix it, but I kind of liked how I messed up "messed up." Too artsy? Sue me.)

First, I started watching "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" while running on the treadmill. Hey, I figured I could pump up the volume on the DVD and not miss anything. But I forgot about the British accents, which really require subtitles every now and then, don't they?

Then, while finishing the movie later, I kept nodding off. So yeah, even if I managed to have normal viewing behavior in between those bookends, my overall experience was a bit muddled. Maybe that's why I was left at the end with a general feeling of "eh."

It's possible that repeated viewings of "Hitchhiker" will yield more pleasures. No question there are all sorts of subtle bits -- I mentioned the British thing, right? -- and it's not a hard movie to look at when it comes to kooky sci-fi. Definitely a "Fifth Element" thing going on here. Of course, by mentioning that, I've likely p!ssed off all the longtime "Hitchhiker" fans who have soaked up the books, radio and TV incarnations of this thing -- stuff I know absolutely nothing about.

As for this particular movie, our story has an Everyman Brit named Arthur Dent learning from his friend -- who is actually an alien -- that Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for an hyperspace bypass. Fortunately, he gets out in time. Unfortunately, that's just the start of his zany adventures, which include all sorts of interaction with weird aliens and a bizarre love triangle -- all together now ... "Every time I see you falling, I get down on my knees and pray ... " -- with a girl he met before Earth was destroyed and the president of the galaxy.

I'll be honest .... I lost track as things went along, but I kind of think that was by design. It seemed more important to appreciate the moment, and that's almost understandable considering the fun actors involved -- to wit, Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell (who's really good), Bill Nighy and John Malkovich. Oh, and did I mention that Alan Rickman provides the voice of a depressed robot, while Thomas Lennon -- of "The State" and "Reno 911!" fame -- is the hyperactive voice of a spaceship?

It's funny ... on the one hand, there seemed like there was a lot of stuff going on here. On the other, I was, well, a little bored. Visually, it's not a bad movie. I love spaceships and aliens as much as anyone. And I didn't mind the narration so much, nor the goofy touches like an "improbability drive" and dreadful alien poetry. But, at least the first time around, it was a bit jumbled for me. It also suffered a bit by featuring Martin Freeman as Arthur -- a perfectly fine choice, but the role pales by comparison to his fantastic turn as Tim in the British version of "The Office."

Like I said, time will tell with this one. No question I could be three steps behind everyone else who knew about the "Hitchhiker" stuff and was rolling with every scene, and maybe when I see this the next time -- preferably with a few drinks or a couple of Percosets in me -- I'll appreciate it more. Until then, I'll merely revel in the fact that Mos Def, Alan Rickman and John Malkovich could be in the same movie and leave me unimpressed. Seriously, what are the odds?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

There's style, and there's stupid: "Man on Fire"

You have to wonder about Tony Scott. Sure, he gave us "Top Gun," and I have a soft spot for "The Last Boy Scout" -- where a haggard Bruce Willis says, "This is the 90s. You don't just go around punching people. You have to say something cool first." I even kind of liked "Enemy of the State," although there was too much razzle-dazzle for me (more on this later).

But even with a few halfway-decent movies, how do you think Tony likes hanging around older brother Ridley Scott these days? It's bad enough that Ridley had the recent one-two punch of "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down." He also helmed a couple of sci-fi movies -- "Alien" and "Blade Runner" -- with huge followings. Meanwhile, you rarely hear someone claim to be a big "Beverly Hills Cop II" fan. (And let's not touch "Days of Thunder.")

I bring this up because I think ol' Tony just tried too hard with "Man on Fire." There's a good movie in here somewhere, but it's lost amid a story that drags and camera work that overloads the senses. Hard to believe anyone could work so hard to make a movie seem frenetic, yet still let it plod along for well over two hours. Bravo!

Our story has Denzel Washington ("Carbon Copy") as a burned-out CIA guy who gets a job as a bodyguard in Mexico, right about the time a lot of people have been kidnapped for ransom. His assignment: protect precocious Dakota Fanning as he ferries her to and from school, swim practice, piano lessons, etc.

Although the alcoholic Denzel tells the girl and her parents (Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell) that he's a bodyguard, not a friend, little Dakota eventually penetrates his hard outer shell. Awwww. Too bad she gets kidnapped, then killed when a ransom dropoff goes wrong. Now Denzel is going to find the people who did this and make them pay ... with their lives!

As far as hostage stories go, it's better than "Proof of Life," especially given the whole police corruption angle. I'll also admit that while it was way too cute at times, the whole Dakota-Denzel dynamic was decently developed. If we don't see that, then we really would question why this washed-up guy would care about avenging her death. That vengeance wasn't bad, either, with Denzel mostly convincing as a tough guy who would stop at nothing to get answers.

Unfortunately, all of this is overshadowed by Tony Scott's stylistic overkill. First, the colors aren't quite right -- too washed out in places, too dark in others. Then we have quick-cut after quick-cut and stutter after stutter with the camera. It's really jumpy, and this is coming from a guy who thought "The Blair Witch Project" was just fine. Finally, between the Spanish dialogue, some muffled lines and the apparent need to just highlight certain words, we get a lot of subtitles that, for some reason, are all over the screen and in different typeface. Um, what's up with that? If you're going to make me read, at least keep the words in one place.

Sure, I understand a guy wanting to have a distinctive style, and I recall some of this stuff in "Enemy of the State" and "Spy Game." But it's really in overdrive here, and that's a shame because this story and these actors are probably compelling enough to not need too many whistles and bells. Washington is OK in a different kind of role; the guy's got a great smile, but we pretty much never see it. Fanning isn't as annoying as in other movies. Mitchell and Anthony are both fine as tortured parents, and Christopher Walken, Mickey Rourke, Rachel Ticotin and Giancarlo Giannini have good supporting roles.

Like I said, it comes down to the director just showing some restraint. If you've seen "True Romance," you know that's not Tony Scott's strong suit. But who am I to argue with a guy who's been nominated for three directing Oscars? Oh, wait ... that's Ridley.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

With funky facial hair, however: "Without Limits"

So just as I get this crazy idea about running a marathon, this movie breezes through my cable system. What great timing! If I start thinking about twisted sex, will the non-Oscar-winning "Crash" show up? God, I hope not.

I had seen "Without Limits," oh, maybe five years ago, when a guy I worked with -- also a runner -- raved about it. "Pure guts," he would say, " ... pure guts." To be honest, he was a little eccentric, but hey, those guys suggest the best movies. ("Repo Man?" Sure!)

I remembered liking "Without Limits" better than the other biopic about 1970s U.S. distance runner Steve Prefontaine, titled "Prefontaine." (Apparently paving the way for "Ray" when it comes to creative movie titles.) That one starred Jared Leto, who actually isn't a bad actor but was just too pretty for the role of an intense runner. Also, R. Lee Ermey as the coach? Did you see "Full Metal Jacket?" Those guys might run fast, coach, but they're never coming back.

"Without Limits," on the other hand, has a nice pair in Billy Crudup as Prefontaine and Donald Sutherland as his coach, Bill Bowerman. Yeah, the guy who later founded Nike. We even see him using the waffle iron to make shoe soles in his home and everything. Funny as that is, the movie belongs to Crudup, who is a pretty underrated actor. Hell, I'm even considering seeing "Trust the Man" because he looks funny in it. (Also, we've had a David Duchovny sighting! Seriously, where has that guy been, abducted by aliens? Pa dum dum ... I'll be here all week. Try the veal.)

Anyway, "Limits" shows how little Stevie went from being a stud high school runner to THE MAN in college running to an Olympic favorite. While that may seem a meteoric rise, there's plenty of time for tension between him and his coach, and a few runners to boot. (Boot ... shoe ... foot ... get it? Never mind.) Oh, and it wouldn't be complete without a girl. She's played by Monica Potter, whose blond tresses and button nose fit right in on the U. of Oregon campus.

While I never saw the real Prefontaine -- running or in interviews -- Crudup really seems to strike the right note throughout the movie, from the goofy kid in love to (more often) the guy who just wants to run hard and run fast, coaching be damned. The tug-of-war between him and the reserved Sutherland -- you know, as opposed to the manic Sutherland in ... um, nothing -- is fun to watch, as are Prefontaine's highs and lows. Really, it's not only a good sports movie, but a nice movie in general about a bright star who burned out too quickly.

My biggest beef: Prefontaine was a three-miler. How's that going to help me a run a marathon? Really ... suck it up, Steve, and show me how to log 26.2 miles. Three miles? I can do that in my sleep. Of course, waking up and not knowing where I am kind of sucks.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Why does ADD always get a bad rap?

I mean, don't you get more done if you don't spend more than 30 seconds on anything?

I've let a lot of movies pile up in the last few weeks, and since I'm going out of town this weekend, let's turbo through them as quickly as possible. We're going for speed, not art here, people.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
I had never seen this movie known mostly for one line, and while considered a classic, I was prepared to be disappointed. I was wrong. Solid story, if a bit slow to get going, and a great, different role for Humphrey Bogart. He's not the best guy in this tale of three guys chasing gold in Mexico -- Walter Huston as the grizzled prospector gets that honor. But it was fun to see Bogey go overboard and be shadier than you expect. Compared to this, Rick from "Casablanca" was a choirboy. Heck, he probably wouldn't even ask to see any stinkin' badges.

Melinda and Melinda
Woody Allen movies? Not so much. But this one seemed interesting enough, and I was pleasantly surprised that I liked it. Maybe it was because it's sort of two movies in one. We open with two guys at dinner debating whether a basic outline of a story would make a better comedy or tragedy, and then we see their respective visions play out. It's not a bad idea, and the stories weren't as boring as the typical Woody yakety-yak. ("Annie Hall" = overrated.) Also notable, given my disappointment with "Talledega Nights," was Will Ferrell, who -- as I've suggested time and again -- plays it subtle and dispenses with the yelling in this ensemble cast. He's not bad as a bumbling guy who falls in love, and it really wouldn't kill him to consider keeping the volume on low in more roles like this.

Bad Day at Black Rock
I had never heard of this movie before it came on TCM recently. It's a nice, tight little suspense pic from the 1950s, although it looks at least 10 or 15 years newer. That's because it's MGM's first film in Cinemascope. Great opening shot of a train screaming across the desert, and the plot has Spencer Tracy as a mysterious stranger trying to get some answers in a speck of a dusty town. When nobody talks, things get interesting. Villains include a young Lee Marvin, who's lanky but threatening, and Ernest Borgnine, who's definitely not lanky but also menacing. The showdown between him and Tracy is particularly entertaining. Like I said, a solid little movie, only 81 minutes long.

The Lost Weekend
Another classic that started out more cute than scary but ultimately paints a stark, convincing picture of one man's madness, thanks to that devil liquor. That this came out in 1945 is all the more impressive. (Billy Wilder ... wow.) Our story has Ray Milland as a struggling writer who just can't shake the bottle. We follow him through the weekend, from the high times in his local NYC bar to the desperation when he can't find money for booze. The scene where he tries to pawn his typewriter -- yes, that's how low he has sunk -- is particularly powerful, as is the downward spiral that ultimately sends him to the nuthouse. Like I said, it seems a little cute at first -- oh look, he's hiding a bottle -- but Milland goes all-out, and it's truly pathetic. But, you know, in an impressive way.

I bought this for cheap not long ago as part of a double-DVD set that also included "The Terminator." Love this movie -- the story, the effects, the villains, the tongue-in-cheek Paul Verhoeven touches. Maybe best of all is seeing both Red Forman from "That '70s Show" -- whom I met ... nice guy -- and Dr. Romano from "ER" as bad guys. And you know, it's not a stretch to say I'm a Verhoeven fan. Consider what came after "Robocop": "Total Recall," "Basic Instinct," "Showgirls," "Starship Troopers" and "Hollow Man." All good? No way. Any of them boring? Not by a longshot. Hey, I even have "Showgirls" on VHS. It's funny!